In the courtroom, she's fast on the draw Sketch artist brings drama of trials to area's TV screens

December 14, 1995|By Elaine Tassy | Elaine Tassy,SUN STAFF

Wielding pencils, markers and colored chalk, artist Beth Otter brings courtroom drama to Baltimore-area television screens.

Her portfolio includes sketches of former Baltimore Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean, who left office under the cloud of fraud, and convicted murderers James Allan Kulbicki and John F. Thanos. This week, she added James Thomas Wood, accused of killing a Baltimore County minister on Christmas Eve 1994.

Ms. Otter, 39, is one of Maryland's few courtroom sketch artists. It's art on the run, trying to capture a likeness for the evening news, blocking out horrifying testimony, and sketching quickly -- like on a five-floor elevator ride.

"It's very different from having a model sit perfectly still in a studio," said Ms. Otter, a Baltimore native who lives in Hamilton with her husband and two sons. "It's really apples and oranges -- it's like someone throwing 10 of them at you and saying, 'Catch.' "

Ms. Otter is a contractual worker, sometimes for Washington stations and WBFF-TV, but mostly for WJZ-TV. She is paid from $200 to $250 a day, and often sells her work to attorneys for $200 to $400 a sketch.

"Her work is wonderful," said WJZ's assignment manager, Beverly Epstein. "She is kind of our eyes and ears. Often, if we don't have a reporter in the courtroom, then Beth is there, and through her sketching, helps us with reporting."

Soon after graduating in 1981 from the Maryland Institute, College of Art with a degree in general fine arts, Ms. Otter saw a sketch on television and thought it was poorly done. "I called up one of the stations and I said, 'I think you need a courtroom artist.' "

Soon she won a spot among the handful of Maryland courtroom artists.

Another local sketch artist, Elaine Stendorf, 65, who has mixed courtroom jobs with portraiture and fashion work for the past 20 years, is recovering from back surgery. And Betsy Kirk, 49, who used to sketch regularly for WMAR-TV, took a job in January as an animation artist for a computer games company.

Courtroom artists evolved after a federal judge in the 1920s found cameras in courtrooms were too distracting, Ms. Otter said.

These days, some of the nation's hottest courtroom action -- such as the O. J. Simpson trial -- is covered by cameras. But in Maryland, cameras are prohibited in criminal cases, and allowed in civil cases only with the judge's permission and approval of all parties.

Ms. Otter has seen some defendants hide behind their clothes or hats; others have mouthed obscenities or tried to spit at her. "John Thanos used to thumb his nose at me or stick his tongue out at me," she said, recalling the murderer put to death last year.

At other times, subjects want her sketches to flatter them. "I always get comments like, 'Can you take off my chin, or can you make my hairline lower?' "

Usually dressed in sweaters and jeans -- she said she has ruined nicer outfits with art supplies -- Ms. Otter uses pastels, felt-tip markers and colored pencils to capture people as they make distinctive gestures. When they move from that pose, she watches for them to return to it.

After 14 years, she is still hard on herself when she sees her work on TV. Sometimes, she thinks certain camera shots don't do her work justice, and at other times, she takes the blame.

"You have drawings that are just like magic, they really click," she said, "and [with] others, it's like, 'Did I ever have a drawing lesson?' "

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